On January 22, a U.S. federal appeals court revived a lawsuit by the Mexican government accusing America’s largest gunmakers of aiding and abetting the trafficking of weapons across the border. 

Litigation against gunmakers is almost always tossed out because of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, or PLCAA, a 2005 federal law that protects gunmakers from being held liable for crimes committed with their products. 

But the decision handed down last month shows that Mexico’s case differs from earlier lawsuits in two important respects: the violations that the country has accused gunmakers of committing, and the overwhelming amount of evidence it has to support its allegations. 

As The Trace has reported, PLCAA still permits suits that allege that gunmakers violated state or federal laws related to the marketing or sale of firearms. 

Mexico has accused the gunmakers — including Glock, Smith & Wesson, and Colt — of violating laws that are explicitly firearm-related, such as exporting guns without a license. The country alleges that those violations have led to the smuggling of hundreds of thousands of firearms across the border every year, causing violence in Mexico to soar. 

The defendants have denied the allegations and blamed Mexico’s violence on inadequate law enforcement. Glock and Smith & Wesson did not respond to requests for comment. A representative for Colt said that the company does not comment on pending litigation. 

Andrew Willinger, the executive director of Duke’s Center for Firearms Law, said the appellate judges were likely swayed by the facts Mexico included in its complaint, which draws a plausible line between the gunmakers’ conduct and the country’s violence. 

Mexico’s complaint shows that, over a five-month period in 2020, nearly half of all the crime guns recovered by Mexican authorities were manufactured by the defendants. After the expiration of the U.S. federal assault weapons ban in 2004, the gunmakers significantly increased production, particularly of the type of military-style rifles preferred by drug cartels. At the same time, according to the complaint, the number of gun-related homicides in Mexico surged from fewer than 2,500 in 2003 to about 23,000 in 2019, a jump of more than 800 percent. 

“It’s an uncommonly strong argument on the Mexican government’s behalf,” Willinger said. 

The appellate decision might inspire American cities facing their own gun violence problems to attempt lawsuits with arguments akin to Mexico’s, but Willinger said he believes they would have a tougher time without similarly stark figures at their disposal. “I just have trouble imagining that American cities could conjure the same before-and-after picture,” he said. 

The defendants could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it’s unclear if the justices would take the case. 

The PLCAA law was devised by gunmakers and their lobbyists to thwart lawsuits brought by more than 40 cities in the 1990s and early 2000s. 

Many of these cities alleged that gunmakers had violated public nuisance statutes, which criminalize conduct that causes harm to the general public, like a factory polluting a waterway. Courts generally decided that, under PLCAA, public nuisance statutes were not applicable to the sale or marketing of firearms, and they subsequently dismissed all but one of the cases. 

The lone survivor, a suit brought by the city of Gary, Indiana, is ongoing